Falconry Made Fascinating: Mcdonald’s memoir H is for Hawk

For anyone who has felt an affinity with animals, particularly birds, this memoir—H is for Hawk—is not to be missed.  What a remarkable evocation of animal life and of the animal dimension of our human existence.  The author, Helen Macdonald, seems to have lived so closely with her trained goshawk, Mabel, that she has inhabited the creature.  Or perhaps it has inhabited her. 

After months of patient practice, they hunt together, and though Macdonald intuitively hates killing, she is so drawn into the catch-and-kill mindset of Mabel, that, as she explains, the bird takes her to “the very edge of being human” then beyond.  “I crept and walked and ran. I crouched.  I looked.  I saw more than I’d ever seen.  The world gathered about me.  It made absolute sense.  But the only things I knew were hawkish things, and the lines that drew me across the landscape were the lines that drew the hawk: hunger, desire, fascination, the need to find and fly and kill.”  And when Mabel the goshawk finally succeeds, bringing down a pheasant then mauling it in her powerful talons, Mcdonald has to face her own participation in the violence, a participation that will be familiar to anyone who has ever hunted at all.

Mcdonald’s genre-bending memoir was written after the sudden unexpected death of her father, which was a cataclysmic event.  He was a widely respected journalistic photographer and a winsome, caring father, so Mcdonald’s book is, in large part, a meditation on grieving.  It is also a kind of specialist’s guidebook, rife with quirky hawk-training lore.  And it is part biography, toggling back and forth from the life of the English author T.H. White, famous for his novel The Sword in the Stone, which feature hawks used by medieval hunters.  However, the real marvel of this peculiar memoir, with all its emphasis on falconry, is not so much how Mcdonald becomes attuned to the goshawk but how she realizes her humanness in the process.  When Mabel is mantling wings over yet another captured rabbit, “tail spread, eyes burning, nape-feathers raised in a tense and feral crouch,” the human side of Macdonald is reawakened.  Out of mercy, she reaches out to the squealing animal, breaking its neck by pushing its head away while yanking its back legs.  She doesn’t shy from her role, as distressing as it is, but she experiences a return to the sensitive, cognitive awareness that she has been suppressing during this mindless time of grieving.  “Hunting,” she realizes, “makes you animal, but the death of an animal makes you human.”

Her recollection of that paradoxical moment reminds me of the first time I shot a dove, using an arrow I had tethered with fishing line so that it would not fly beyond the chain link fence of my boarding school in Ethiopia.  Hitting any bird had been theoretical until then, and I was sick with what I had done, as the dove flapped weakly, hanging upside down in a cedar tree, impaled and dangling from the tangled line.  Panicked by my approach, it made a tremendous effort to fly free, wings smacking branches and head bobbing.  I was too startled and disturbed to touch it even after it hung still, so my more-experienced friend had to slide it off the arrow and pinch its small skull between curled fingers, snapping his wrist so that the head detached and the bird plummeted to the ground, out of pain.

Believe it or not, that moment increased my love for birds.  It didn’t stop me from hunting for more, killing a couple dozen with that bow and later with a slingshot.  But with every bird that I got to know in this violent way—sneaking under a canopy of trees and aiming slowly and eventually holding the stunned creature in my hand where I could feel the soft dustiness of its feathers and the galloping of its small heart—I was becoming more in love, so that after a year or two of such teenage assassinations and after even teaching myself how to stuff the birds taxidermy-style, emptying out their skulls and preserving their skin and tiny bones with powdered borax, I would never again want to shoot one, would only want to know more about them, and to recognize them by their silhouettes or their peculiar markings or their varied songs.  The Lilac-Breasted Roller or Emerald Kingfisher or Superb Starling, and eventually all the wonderful American birds, including predators such as the Bald Eagle and Kestrel and Barred Owl or, like Mcdonald’s own trained Mabel, the Goshawk.

I fell so in love with birds that now I go to the woods at a state park here in Iowa and stop often to watch—shooting photos if I can.  And I lament the decline of bird populations all around the world, which journalists have declared to be down by three billion in the U.S. and Canada alone, or roughly one in three.  I feel guilty, too, about having contributed to this worldwide decline, although I don’t think I could have ever come to care about birds as much as I do if I had not had such moments of direct contact.

In the writing of this book, Mcdonald went to the edge of being human and beyond, but she returned, and we are all the better for it.  It is in her humanness that she helps us to understand better the tortured, conflicted failures of T.H. White as a novice hawker and the depths of our own grief after losing someone we love.  But more importantly, Mcdonald shows us the need to come back to community, back into being who we were made to be.  Mabel, the goshawk, has brought her back to being Macdonald the human, and that is the true marvel of their unique, sometimes disturbing memoir.  I recommend the book wholeheartedly!

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